(update below)

Sharanda Purlette Jones is an African-American woman, who has been incarcerated for more than 14 years. She is 45 years old and has a twenty-two year-old daughter named Clenesha Garland. She has no more appeals. A petition for commutation is pending. She was sentenced to life without parole for the nonviolent crimes involving crack cocaine, which “co-conspirators” told prosecutors she had committed.

A drug task force operation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, led to her arrest in Terrell, a “majority white town” of “approximately 13,500 people located 40 miles east of Dallas.” One couple that agreed to become informants helped launch a larger investigation that led 105 people that were Black to be arrested. The couple was friends with Jones and called her to ask if “she knew where they could buy drugs.” Sharanda had no idea the call was being taped and said she might be able to introduce them to people so they could buy some drugs.

In April 1999, she was indicted and “voluntarily surrendered to police.” Sharanda had not been arrested before. She was acquitted of counts of crack cocaine possession but found guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine in August.

As the ACLU describes, “There was no physical evidence presented at trial that connected her to drug trafficking with her five co-conspirators—no producible amount of drugs, video surveillance, or any other physical evidence. Other than the taped phone call, the allegations were based entirely on the testimony of co-conspirators.”

She also was given “mandatory life without parole”:

To arrive at Jones’s base offense level for sentencing purposes, the judge took the 30 kilograms of powder cocaine alleged by the co-conspirators and multiplied it by an arbitrary ratio to hold her accountable for a large quantity of crack cocaine because the conspiracy’s end product was crack. The judge then enhanced Jones’s offense level based on her managerial role; possession of a firearm (Jones was licensed to carry a firearm in Texas); and obstruction of justice for testifying in her own defense (the judge found that the jury, by virtue of its guilty verdict, had found implicitly that her testimony under oath was false). Jones says of her sentencing, “It was devastating and shocking to me, my body was silent and numb—I couldn’t respond I was so shocked.”

Oh, and, the ACLU adds actor Chuck Norris was a “volunteer police officer for the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department and participated in some of the arrests.”

This is just one of the 110 stories of individuals sentenced to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses they committed, many which were petty and, in some instances, a horrible mistake on their part. Their lives have been ruined. Their families have been destroyed. And their stories are detailed in a major report from the ACLU called “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.”

What is documented in ACLU’s report is a feature of the War on Drugs that allows for mass incarceration of Americans for crimes. Rather than bother to rehabilitate them, they are punished with prison for the rest of their life.

The report indicates that 3,278 prisoners are serving life without parole sentences for “drug, property, and other nonviolent crimes in the United States as of 2012.” Its use has “exploded nationwide,” and is available for non-homicide offenses like selling drugs, burglaries, robberies, carjackings and battery. Twenty-nine states make it “mandatory upon conviction of particular crimes” to give a defendant a life without parole sentence.

Twenty-two states permit life without parole sentences for “certain nonviolent crimes.” Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Carolina all have the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Another story from the ACLU report: Elisa Castillo is a Texas grandmother, who is 57 years old and incarcerated in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. She is serving a life without parole sentence.

She is a Mexican immigrant, who dropped out of school at the age of 14. It was a strugle for her to “make ends meet” so she pawned her jewelry to pay rent. Her son paid the electric with a credit card. She “worked as a bus station ticket-taker and recalls” dreaming of “owning her own bus.”

Castillo followed the advice of a boyfriend and became a partner with a Mexico resident who setup a Houston-based bus company. She was given money to purchase “three tour buses that would travel between Mexico and Houston; they were kept in her name.”

Her salary was never paid, according to her, but she was given money for “bus company expenses” She claims she did not realize she was participating in a “cocaine trafficking operation between Mexico and Houston and that she was unaware that the buses were outfitted with secret compartments in which cocaine was stashed.”

Castillo wound up being arrested and given the harshest sentence “of the approximately 68 people convicted for their involvement in the scheme” because she could not “provide any valuable information to federal agents that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of the leaders or other high-level members of the drug conspiracy.” She had no criminal record before being sentenced to life without parole in federal prison.

There are teenagers who have suffered this fate. Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. is an African-American, who has spent half of his life in prison.

Wintersmith grew up in a family where drugs were used, and crack cocaine was cooked, packaged and sold. His mother died from a heroin overdose when he was 11 years old. He moved in with his grandmother and had to take care of his siblings. His aunts taught him how to cook crack. His grandmother was imprisoned when he was 16 for selling drugs. He worked for $4.25/hr at Red Lobster. That was not good enough to take care of his younger siblings and him so he began to sell crack cocaine. At 17, he dropped out of high school and became involved in a “drug ring in Rockford, Illinois.”

He was arrested along with 19 others just after his nineteenth birthday. He declined a plea offer of 10 years’ imprisonment and apparently was not aware that he could be given a “mandatory life-without parole sentence” if his case went to trial. He was charged with “conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute crack and powder cocaine and possession of crack cocaine, but his conviction was treated as part of a “much larger drug conspiracy case.”

Wintersmith was also held accountable for the entire amount of cocaine that he sold while he was involved in the drug ring for one year. He had no criminal record and was a teenager but still was given a mandatory life without parole sentence in 1994.

“If he had sold the same—or almost triple—the amount of cocaine, but entirely in its powder form, the federal sentencing guidelines would have required just 30 years’ imprisonment. However, because he distributed crack as well, the guidelines mandated a life sentence,” his clemency attorney said.

Wintersmith has no more appeals. His only hope for leaving prison before he dies is a commutation of his sentence.

His daughter has pleaded with President Barack Obama to let her father go free:

Even though my father has been away from me physically, he’s been there for me mentally. My father and I have a really close relationship; I can talk to him about anything. He always makes me smile even when I’m down…My father has served almost 20 years already; he didn’t get a chance to see me grow up…Every girl deserves to have their father in their life. Obama, please commute my father’s sentence…I miss him so much and I just want him to have a second chance at life.

The ACLU report indicates that people have been given life without parole sentences for “attempting to cash a stolen check,” possessing stolen junk metal, possessing “stolen wrenches,” “siphoning gasoline from a truck,” “stealing tools from a tool shed and a welding machine from a yard,” “shoplifting three belts from a department store,” shoplifting digital cameras, shoplifting jerseys in an athletic store, “taking a television, circular saw and a power converter from a vacant house,” “breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night.”

Sylvester Mead, an African-American and 51 years old now, has served thirteen years in prison. In October 2000, he had too much to drink at a party with his wife. He returned home and burned catfish he was cooking and then grew “angry and belligerent.” His stepdaughter, who was 15 years old, called the police and he was arrested and put in a patrol car.

While in the patrol car, he apparently said to police, “I should have shot you this time,” and, “If you come back again, you better bring your arsenal.” Also, he said, “I’ll do everything I can to get your damn badge and “in about two hours, you make the trip back to my house.” Mead was clearly intoxicated but he was convicted of “public intimidation for his drunken threat to the police officer” and given a life without parole sentence.

Though the jury found him guilty of public intimidation, the trial court ruled that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, did not support a guilty verdict and accordingly set aside the jury’s verdict.547 The prosecutor appealed the post-verdict acquittal, the appellate court reinstated the conviction, and Mead was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a second-time felony offender. The prosecutor again appealed, and the appellate court then found Mead should be sentenced as a third-time felony

Finally, here’s another story. It is about someone who was trying to do the right thing and will now likely die behind bars for it.

Lance Saltzman was sentenced to a mandatory life without parole sentence under Florida’s Prison Releasee Reoffender Law because, as the ACLU’s report indicates, he had committed a burglary of his own home within three years of his release from prison for a burglary committed when he was 16 years old.

In March 2006, when he was 21, Saltzman came home to find his stepfather, Toni Minnick, and his mother, Christina Borg, were in a heated argument. His stepfather took his gun and pointed it at his mother. He fired it near her. His mother called the police. Police seized the gun then returned it to his stepfather days later. There were no charges filed. Again, his stepfather pulled the gun on his mother and threatened to kill his mother.

Saltzman decided that his stepfather should no longer have this firearm. He was likely to shoot and kill his mother. In June, he removed the gun from his stepfather’s bedroom and then sold the gun, according to evidence, to “feed his drug addiction.” It was later used in a burglary.

His stepfather found the gun missing and notified the police. Police found the gun “in the possession of the young man who had committed the burglary.” Saltzman was then charged with “armed burglary, grand theft of a firearm, and being a felon in possession of a firearm—all for breaking into his own home and taking his stepfather’s gun.” Police also found cocaine in his car and he was charged with possession of cocaine.

Now, one problem Saltzman has is that when he was 17 months old, according to his mother, a pit bull attacked him. That caused head trauma and left him with a cognitive deficit problem. He also struggled with drugs as a teen and never received treatment. But, he did think to save his mom from being murdered by his stepfather and, for that, a chain of events were set off that eventually led him to be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

This is a perfect illustration of the inhumanity of putting someone in prison for nonviolent offenses. It is severe punishment that violates a person’s human rights and arbitrarily deprives them of liberty. It represents a sickness in our society, one that we can begin to address by halting the practice of putting people in jail for life for committing nonviolent crimes and commuting the sentences of prisoners who have stories similar to what is described in this incredible report.


Racial disparity is stunning.

Based on data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino. In the 646 cases examined for this report, the ACLU found that 72.9 percent of these documented prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 19.8 percent are white, and 6.9 percent are Latino.

Graphics included in the ACLU report: